Bauxite and Ghana’s Development

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That Ghana is inviting the Chinese to mine bauxite at Atiwa and some other ore centres has made remarkable headlines this week. Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia says his government sought to leverage less than five percent of our bauxite deposits to unlock close to $20billion. According to him, Ghana has about 460million tonnes of bauxite reserves and it is only prudent to use some of it to source for the needed funds for development, particularly when borrowing options are limited for this country which has a high debt-to-GDP ratio.

“We are proposing a joint venture with China, where we bring a fraction of our reserves, less than five percent of our bauxite reserves, and they provide close to $20billion,” he said. (Daily Graphic, Wednesday, July 05.)

GH’s bauxite worth $400b?

In another publication, I think the New Crusading Guide; the chairman of the Economic Management Team is reported to have added that the invitation of the Chinese does, by no means, preclude other nations from bringing more investments into Ghana’s bauxite industry. My not-so-reliable ‘rithmatic tells me that, if about 5% of our reserves can attract $20billion; then the whole 100% can bring up to some $400billion. Wow!  Too good to be true.

What is bauxite?

But, at this stage, one may pause to ponder: What is bauxite? Bauxite is a residual rock formed from the weathering of various igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. Bauxite is the principal ore of alumina, which is used to produce aluminum.

Ninety percent of the known world bauxite resources are in tropical countries: Central America, West Africa – especially Guinea, India, Vietnam and Australia. Current estimated global bauxite resource is more than 70billion tonnes, with Guinea alone sitting on over 25billion tonnes.

What for?

When STX Korea and STX Ghana promised us 200,000 housing units in 2009/2010, questions raised by critical minds included: Where will they get the wood to roof the houses; where will they get the roofing sheets? It was estimated that – put together – 200,000 housing units would be bigger than the city of Kumasi. The Volta Aluminum Company and the small private companies foundering aluminum and aluzinc roofing sheets  would just be unable to supply that much in one, two or even five years; it was feared. Much of the money in that market would leak to foreign economies, thus.

So, if today, you going to have bauxite extracted from your own land – and if you are lucky the alumina is refined in your own country – you can be sure such gargantuan projects as the aborted STX deal can be executed more easily; more profitable to the country. Apart from housing accommodation, factories and warehouses use remarkable quantities of aluminum products. Of course, judicious planning of the ore extraction can link it up with the dream of One-District-One-Factory.

All so-called silver cooking utensils are actually aluminum cooking utensils. My late science teacher, A.A. Owusu would quip: “Who will put silver on fire just to cook in it, when a small silver ring on the finger costs so much?” The point here is that most cooking utensils are made of aluminum. Produce the input here, and costs of living will be forced down a bit to the relief of families and institutions. Well, cigarette smoking is today abhorred; it used to be in vogue especially in the 1970s and ‘80s when we schooled. Cigarettes are wrapped in aluminum foils and so you can also sell part of your product to the tobacco companies, if you have not taken a principled position against cigarette manufacturing and smoking.

Jobs for the men

One major benefit Akyem Abuakwa, Eastern Region will be yearning for from the Bauxite Industry is the avenue of jobs. Does it hold many? Well, my checks suggest that bauxite mines typically employ 500 to 1000 people. That may not be enough for the unemployed youth and redundant galamsey operators at East Akyem and the Atiwa districts alone. Add a 1000 more vacancies for food vendors and other secondary workers and still you have not satisfied the huge expectation. That is why you have to strive for the linkages of alumina refinery, housing, district enterprises etc.

 

NPP’s long-held dream

Indeed, bauxite extraction holds the potential of accelerating this country’s development. It is obvious that the New Patriotic Party that has returned to power is convinced about that. You remember the Agyekum Kufuor regime bought the defunct Volta Aluminum Company Limited from its American owners at the twilight of his rein? That has remains a white elephant till now, as Ghana Today pointed out in our June 16 edition. This sequel NPP government looks poised to give meaning to that buy-out that cost this nation US$18million.

Tread cautiously

But, realising that useful meaning will depend on how the current talks with the Chinese goes. My research confirms that some alumina refineries are located close to their bauxite mines. If you are mining in the Atiwa Range, the furthest you may need to go to refine is Tema; not China, as it may happen if we are not bargaining tough at the meetings. The Chinese with equal obstinacy are likely to want the fattest part of the deal – including possibly hauling the alumina back home to process and add value. After all, that is how every foreign investor cheated us in gold, diamond and manganese mining over the last century.

You probably also remember that Ghana Today observed in the edition captioned Stop the Chinanisation of Africa! that the spread of the Chinese into Africa, Asia, South America, The Middle East and – indeed – the whole world is a matter of 1.4billion people seeking survival. We also cited the case of Aisha Huang, 31, the Chinese ‘Iron Lady’ at the centre of the illegal mining in Ghana’s Asante Region as only a microcosm of a bigger audacity of the Chinese people to seek and capture new resources, new wealth, and new settlements. We have to ‘shine our eyes’ while we deal with China in another – albeit new – mining venture.

We have been tinkering with reconstructing our Eastern and Western Railways apart from opening new ones – including the ambitious project of reaching Niamey and Ouagadougou on trains. It only makes sense to factor in the proposed aluminum extraction so that the new railways are extended to the Atiwa and other bauxite mine sites.

Risks

How safe is it to mine aluminum? How safe will it be to mine in the Atiwa Range and other deposit areas in Ghana? Will the cost-benefit analysis favour us? Generally speaking, traumatic injury in bauxite mining is less common, than say, coal mining or even the small-scale gold-digging that is called galamsey in Ghana. The risks of tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are significant at some bauxite mining and alumina refinery locations. Most important risks relate to noise, ergonomics, trauma and caustic soda splashes on the skin and eyes. “Exposures to bauxite dust, alumina dust, and caustic soda mist in contemporary best-practice bauxite mining and alumina refinery operations have not been demonstrated to be associated with clinically significant decrements in lung function,” according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that I consulted.

Specifically speaking; i.e., talking about mining in Ghana, the sources of water for over five million people from the Atiwa District through the East Akyem and Akuapem South municipalities to West Accra look threatened. Reason is that both the Densu and Birim take their source from the Atiwa Range. And, most bauxite (98%) occurs close to the surface, with just about 2% overburden. That means massive surface mining could kill the rivers, wipe out flora and fauna over tens of kilometres. A conscientious extraction that protects the sanctity of the rivers and streams – or the provision of permanent alternative water sources – is crucial and must be well laid out and publicized at the get-go. The irony is that the Birim has been put into coma already through illegal gold-digging and the Densu shrunk by other unsustainable human activities.

To do or not to do?

The only use of money is to part with it. Likewise, the only use of a natural resource is to exploit it. How you exploit it can bring you a worthy satisfaction or a fleeting pleasure followed by misery. We have had more misery than we can bear in the extraction of diamond at the Akwatia area and gold at hundreds of places across this country. The Akufo-Addo/Bawumia introduction of bauxite mining should be measured and prudently executed!   

 

Ghana Today

…with A. C. Ohene

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